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Friends with your ex?

Hello Alice.

I have to ask you a question. I am having a debate with someone as to why your ex cannot be your friend. I'm having a little trouble finding the answer. I need help. So my question is... why is it that you can't be friends with your ex?

Dear Reader, 

Hundreds of websites, books, friends, and family all have opinions on the "dos" and "don'ts" when it comes to dealing with an ex. Furthermore, this situation appears in nearly every romantic comedy and TV sitcom. So, the short answer to your question is that it depends on the person and situation. In fact, there are as many reasons to stay friends with an ex as there are to sever all ties. All of it depends on the two of you — how you feel about each other, how you’re feeling about the breakup, and what feels right for you. 

For those pondering the question of "to be or not to be" friends with their ex, a little self-reflection may be in order. Some questions to consider may include: 

  • How do you feel about the relationship ending? Sometimes, breakups are mutual and feel right for both people. Other times, however, one person may wish to remain in the relationship while the other wishes to leave. Being friends is usually more feasible for the person who is feeling little to no pain about the relationship ending. Why? Well, if a person wishes to end a romantic relationship but still enjoy spending time with their ex, staying friends meets their needs. However, for the person wanting more, being a friend usually doesn't meet their needs. In fact, it can often serve as a painful reminder to the grieving person that they no longer have the type of relationship that they desire with their former partner.  
  • How do you feel when the two of you interact? For the broken-hearted, contact with an ex can be bittersweet. Sometimes, contact can feel good during the conversation, but might feel painful after the fact. It could also leave you wanting more and re-open the emotional wounds that have started to heal. Even hearing about your ex or seeing a social media update from them could potentially send you in a tailspin. If you notice this happening, it may be time to take some space. However, if conversations don't leave you feeling worse, and you don't feel yourself needing recovery time after you see or hear from your ex, it may mean that you both can be friends with one another. 
  • How much do you value their presence in your life? Sometimes, people date and later realize that they’re not a match for each other on many different levels, such as lovers, friends, or even acquaintances. Perhaps they mistreated you or have vastly different values from you. Other times, people may come into your life whom you know you always want there in some capacity. You could ask yourself if this is a person worth keeping around. If the answer is yes, then you can reflect on if being friends right now makes sense or if taking some time may be necessary before a healthy friendship can grow out of your breakup. Transitioning from an intimate relationship to a friendship doesn't typically happen overnight, especially if it's been an intimate one for a long time. 
  • How do you feel when you don't hear from your ex? This can give you as much, if not more, information as knowing how you feel when you do interact with your ex. Do you find yourself wishing and waiting to hear from them? How do you react when they don't email, text, or call? It's wise to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that come up for you when you don't hear from or see this person. If you’re devastated by a breakup, choosing to eliminate all forms of contact, at least temporarily, may give you some space to heal, to meet new people, and to decide if and when a friendship with your ex is possible. 
  • How does your ex feel about being friends? Even if you feel ready to be friends, your former partner may or may not be keen on the idea. Respecting their boundaries is as key during this process as reflecting on your own feelings and wishes. 

When it comes to being friends with an ex, it can help to recognize the fluidity of feelings — for both partners. Having a "no exes as friends" policy across the board may be a good idea in some situations, but it may not make sense in others. Also, know that giving some space now doesn’t eliminate the possibility of connection later. If you need help processing your thoughts and feelings, you may want to talk with a friend, family member, or even a mental health professional. While this information may not settle the debate but it could give more fodder for discussion.

Take care, 

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Last updated Jul 12, 2022
Originally published Dec 10, 2010

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